VOICES: Dr. Aala El-Khani

<h5><strong>Humanitarian psychologist, honorary research associate at the University of Manchester, UNODC Consultant</strong></h5>
Humanitarian psychologist, honorary research associate at the University of Manchester, UNODC Consultant

On this day celebrating happiness, what hints can you share with parents worldwide that will help them raise happy and healthy children?

Parents want their kids to stay out of trouble, do well in school, and go on to do great things as happy adults. And while there isn't a set recipe for raising happy, healthy children, caregivers can do several key things. They map out against the ten 'Listen First' messages, such as spending time with your child, both listening and talking, but also importantly playing with them. We cannot overestimate the benefits of showering children with physical affection. It helps them thrive, reduces their stress, helps their brain development, and supports them in becoming more resilient and confident. Often as parents, we get so wrapped up in providing them with the latest material things, but the greatest gift we can give our child is our undivided attention and time. Children also need to have limits and responsibilities; it keeps them safe and secure and helps them grow into independent adults. People who have studied families worldwide have learned that children do best when their caregivers use both love and limits in their parenting approach.

In your experience working with parents worldwide and in diverse settings, are there commonalities that all parents experience?

Whether I am speaking to a parent in a refugee camp, or one living next door to me in the UK, they all want the same thing; for their children to be healthy and happy and have a promising future. Parenting can be tough work, with ups and downs in the journey, as children grow and enter new phases of their development and as life changes for families. When caregivers face challenges, they often reach out to those around them, family members, teachers, or search online for help and advice. So, access to science-based information on caring for children is crucial.

Is there a science to demonstrate a clear link between increasing parents' skills and substance use prevention?

Absolutely, without a doubt. We now have decades of science that indicates that increasing parents' skills effectively prevents adolescent initiation of many risky behaviors, including substance abuse, and promoting mental health. When we give parents tools to enhance their parenting skills, we positively and significantly change family functioning and parenting practices. The result is a healthier and more supportive environment in which children can grow and develop. Much research has explored different models to explain how various factors influence the possibility that an adolescent starts to abuse substances. In all of these models, parental and family elements have a central position in the long-term pathways leading to substance abuse. Caregivers with enhanced parenting skills are more likely to have a good relationship with their adolescents, who in return are more likely to choose peers who are a positive influence. Enhanced parenting skills lead caregivers to be more supportive, encourage their children to become independent, expect compliance with rules, and are consistent and fair in their discipline practices, resulting in more resilient children. This resilience proves crucial in not partaking in substance abuse.

The ten areas of focus in 'Listen First' reflected the needs of families around the world during the global health pandemic. Are they applicable when life gets back to a more traditional pace?

Physical distancing and lockdowns due to COVID-19 have changed family life for millions globally. School closure, shortages, and illness have severely challenged parenting, leaving caregivers unsure how to best respond to their children's anxieties, worries, behaviors, and needs. These challenges are even more significant for millions of already vulnerable families worldwide, such as refugees or those living in low-resource contexts. 'Listen First' stepped up to the need for a rapid and timely response of science-based parenting messages. Recognizing that caring, responsive adults help protect children in difficult times, especially when they are warm, supportive, and comforting. It helps children make sense of uncertain times and eases their anxieties and worries. During the pandemic, it has been inspiring to see how enhanced family skills are being pushed to the forefront of prevention work globally, and I think this change is here to stay. There is now more profound respect and appreciation of the vital role caregivers play in supporting their children. As the world begins to ease out of lockdown, I believe there is a better understanding that what our children need to thrive starts in our homes and the relationships we develop with our children. The 'Listen First' messages remind caregivers that they are engaged in the most important work of all when caring for their children.

What are your thoughts about 'Listen First'?

Children don't come with manuals, leaving caregivers' often parenting their children in the same way they were parented, regardless of whether this had been a positive experience or not. 'Listen First' is a powerful tool that disseminates science-based prevention messages to families worldwide engagingly and memorably. Caregivers are presented with important family skills, such as listening and communicating, providing warmth, being engaged and present in our interactions with our children, and decades of science and research are backing this up. 'Listen First' is a great way to make families realize how significant their role is in their children's mental and physical well-being, including reducing risky behaviors. It can empower caregivers and encourage them to seek more information and tools to better educate themselves on how to care for their children, so their children can thrive and be the best versions of themselves as independent, caring, and good citizens of the world.

Dr. Aala El-Khani is a humanitarian psychologist developing, implementing, and researching family skills interventions for families in challenged and low resource settings. Dr. El-Khani is a global humanitarian consultant for a number of international organizations including UNODC. She is also an honorary research associate at the University of Manchester.

Read More Voices

Made possible with the generous support of France.